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Smart but Not Smart Enough – When Having an Engineering Degree Doesn’t Cut It

This week, FLTLT Joshua Vicino asks the question – how can Defence maximise the brain power of its people with engineering degrees in a post-FPR world where a typical engineering degree isn’t of great assistance in a ‘govern and assure’ role.

The story is always the same. An Engineering Officer newly posted to Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) arrives to a vague and non-descript duty statement with little understanding of what they’re supposed to do. In an attempt to prove their usefulness, they send emails, attend meetings, and read documents, all the while wondering in bewilderment how the system seems to function with such an open ended approach to posting.

Confronted with this exact situation, I at least enjoyed the benefit of a newly established formal induction training session. The session explained core System Program Office (SPO) business in the post First Principles Review (FPR) world. It covered planning, governing, and assuring the ‘actual’ work of capability acquisition, which was expected to be contracted out at every opportunity.

Like many others in my position, I had never worked in an acquisition agency before, and most definitely had never undertaken any of the detailed development and analysis tasking that is associated with the delivery of complex military systems. Confronted with this guidance and a prevailing sense of panic at not understanding my new role, I asked the presenter how I was supposed to plan, govern, and assure such work given my limited experience and skillset. The answer contained advice that is now infused in my identify:

‘Josh, you’re a smart dude with an engineering degree; you’ll figure it out.’

Now, I’m not going to lie. This was simultaneously the most liberating and the most terrifying thing that I had ever heard.

On the one hand, it was liberating to know that I had the support and backing of my organisation to put my best foot forward. On the other hand, it was terrifying. I witnessed Senator Penny Wong observe at a Senate Estimate Hearing that, cumulatively speaking, there are ‘around 39 Defence projects running a total of 79 years late and 17 major projects running $4.3 billion over budget’. I couldn’t help but feel like I was part of the problem.

In acknowledging this fact we must ask; how can Defence maximise all the utility and brain power afforded by smart people with engineering degrees in a post FPR world?

Delving Deeper

Internal reporting, community sentiment, and personal experience describe a problem characterised by an inadequate understanding of job requirements, underpinned by a lack of appropriate training and education that is feeding a broader skills shortage.

An internal study into engineering support identified that suitable training is not provided to SPO personnel on how to fuse governance and assurance practices with contracted organisations who undertake the ‘actual’ work of delivering technical services. The study goes on to note that at best, Commonwealth staff will often infer good governance and assurance practice through ad hoc comments provided in a range of disparate training courses.

Additionally, the internal study found that the govern and assure practices espoused by the FPR create major difficulties for SPOs in retaining engineering competencies in their Commonwealth workforce. This in turn was identified as a factor that inhibits the provision of engineering support.

Such findings were reinforced at a recent CASG engineering conference, where participants commented on the difficulty of recruiting and retaining sufficiently qualified people who can operate in the new govern and assure paradigm. In particular, one organisation noted that they have been carrying a crucial vacancy at the engineering executive level for nearly two years.

Given the requirement for CASG to principally undertake ‘govern and assure’ practices, it must be noted that a typical engineering degree isn’t of great assistance here either. Speaking to my own experience, whilst I can do math and write code (not very well, I admit), I am yet to see a great deal of relevance in recursive least squares optimisation methods or multivariate vector calculus to the role of a CASG engineering Officer.

Now, having suitably described the problem, the question remains - what to do about it?

Solving the Problem

I believe there are two parts to this – Firstly; training in the core competencies associated with governance and assurance within SPOs. Secondly; greater education on broader, more philosophical aspects of how to think and behave in a large, complex organisation such as CASG.

Much like the maintenance organisation training that Engineering Officers receive in anticipation of posting to an operational Squadron, CASG incumbents require short (i.e. one or half day) courses that tackle what it means to ‘plan, govern, and assure’. Training should include examples that link these practices back to one’s current project context. This is best thought of as a vocational trade based program – members undertake on the job training at work, learning from experienced hands like Chief Engineers, Chief Logisticians, resident ‘olds and bolds’ (you know who I mean - we’ve all got them, remember to give yours a high-five at work tomorrow) whilst simultaneously getting the equivalent of one day a week at trade school. This approach is designed to help members understand the ‘nuts and bolts’ (no, dear reader, I will not be pardoning this pun) of their duty statement as they slowly stitch it together with ‘real world’ experience over the course of their posting.

Secondly, members need support for attending longer (i.e. one/two week) courses on more philosophical topics such as organisational leadership, behaviour, and change etc. These courses, the kinds of which are offered by Business schools across the country, are the types of longer term professional development programs that need to be provided in order to open Defence members up to alternate approaches and broader perspectives. If we continue to raise junior members in the ways of old then we simply grow them in the image of the past, serving only to exacerbate our current state of being perpetually over budget and late to need.

Closing Remarks

It is a well-known fact that Defence’s Engineering Officers are smart, and indeed, have engineering degrees (it’s a requirement of the job). However, the clearly documented deficiencies in training, education, and skills suggest that a degree alone is insufficient for the needs of the organisation. Indeed, my personal experience of CASG to date has left me feeling like an apprentice who isn’t getting their day a week at trade school - untrained in core skills, making it up as I go, and wondering when the house is going to fall down.

If Defence is to address Senator Wong’s observation that it is ‘79 years late’ and ‘4.3 billion dollars over budget’ across a suite of projects, then these problems need to be addressed. As articulated in this thought piece, the solutions need not be excessively complicated or, dare I say it, even ‘innovative’. What it does require though is suitable training, delivered at the right time, and by the right people.

Flight Lieutenant Joshua Vicino is an Electronics Engineer working in the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Bachelor of Science and Master of Electrical Engineering from The University of Melbourne. He is currently the Project Engineering Manager for Project AIR7000 Phase 1B - MQ-4C Triton Acquisition.


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